10 Dec 2016 – For quite a while after my daughter Srishti’s birth, my life centred round GELDERLANDPLEIN, the local mall in our neighbourhood in South Amsterdam, a mere 8-minute walk from our building. The word “Mall” conjures up visions of pleasure shopping, I know – but what I’m referring to is worlds away from that. For my ‘shopping’, for more than 4 years, has basically been doing the rounds of ETOS (for all manner of baby stuff), HEMA (household items) and ALBERT HEIJN (groceries). But shops apart, G’plein (in short) is also an important landmark, and has been the nerve-centre of my daily life for long: all the places that I need to go to are located in and around the mall, including the Bank (ABN-AMRO), the Bibliotheek (Library), and the Huisarts (General Physician); not to forget Srishti’s Baby Clinic (called the OKC, i.e., Ouder en Kind Centrum, or Parent and Child Centre), and later her Kinderopvang (Day Care) and Peuterspelzaal (Playschool); and now, her Kindergarten as well!
G’plein actually brings to life a Bengali proverb for me: “Mollardaur masjid porjonto” (The masjid is the limit of a Muslim’s world). The proverb is rather pejorative of the Muslims and I don’t like it – but applying its basic point to my situation, I could well say that G’plein was my masjid. To the extent that I became sick of it at one point.Couldn’t believe that the life I was leading was mine. But then I told myself that I go there to do different things on different days of the week. That helped! In an old diary of mine, I found the following enumeration: “Monday – Huisarts (‘coz Srishti invariably chose to fall ill on weekends); Tuesday – Baby Clinic; Wednesday and Thursday – Bibliotheek; Friday – shopping ‘tit-bits’; Weekends – socializing”.
That was one routine; but the routines changed as Srishti grew – from baby to toddler to playschool kid.There was however one fact that remained constant: just as I had three principal shops to take care of household needs, I had three cafes as my ‘theks’ – COFFEE & CO, LA PLACE & WERELDS. And that continued even after I started teaching again, once Srishti joined playschool.
I’ve got very used to working in cafés now in short snippets of time. In the absence of a regular full-time job and the perpetually contingent life that it entails, I find myself doing too many different things all-round the year to keep depression at bay; but ultimately, most of it boils down to reading, writing and editing. And I’ve done quite a bit of that (esp. writing) in the cafes of G’plein.
The mall has a vibrant life of its own. I’ve sensed that at various times of the day – right from the time it opens in the morning till late in the evening – in between writing in cafes, and buying provisions, and dropping/picking up Srishti from school, and occasionally meeting friends for lunch or a quick coffee. Vibrant it is; and its beating heart is made up of buggies and oldies.
The neighbourhood we stay in has three old age homes. No wonder then that the elderly throng G’plein (which is actually one of the biggest in Noord Holland) on all days of the week. Oma’s and opa’s (grandpa’s and grandma’s) often meet up with, or are in charge of, their grandchildren on weekdays.
There was this one family that I saw regularly in a café. Within a few weeks, I had seen the entire family – an elderly couple, their two daughters, one son, their partners, and the grandchildren. They usually came in batches, in different permutations and combinations – but the opa was there unfailingly. He seemed quite the doting grandfather – now cradling a new-born, now teasing a toddler, or listening attentively to the prattle of a slightly older grandchild. I saw five in all. How much pension did he earn, I often wondered, to be able to lunch that often in a café. He and his wife always looked deeply contented, seemed to enjoy all the comforts of old age. He had a perpetual smile on his face, while his wife was elegant and reserved.
There was another elderly couple that I frequently spotted. The lady was blind and her partner would lovingly take her around the mall – eating here, buying there, walking and talking, hands always firmly clasped. I’ve never seen a more love-struck couple in my entire life.
Similarly, several faces became familiar to me in the Bibliotheek, half of whose members were old men and women. There were several gradations of old age, though – just retired with grey hair, but walking erect and still handsome; slightly stooped and slow in gait, but resisting the walker just yet; then there were those with walkers; and some, heavily reliant on walkers. Some in fact were so doddery old that it was amazing how they managed to come there at all.
It was the same in the mall, of course, but there they were spread out; whereas in the library, you could sense it more because of their presence together in a confined space.
Over the years, what has really impressed me about the old in this country is the confidence with which they go about living their daily lives – walking, cycling, lunching with friends, doing their grocery. Talking of groceries, I remember an experience of mine at ALBERT HEIJN soon after coming here: I was standing in the queue to pay with a very old lady behind me. I had bought a whole week’s provisions while she had only a few items in her basket. So, I offered her to go first. To my surprise, she took it as an offence! My offer was very well-intentioned… just the way in India we offer seats to old people while using public transport. It was in the same spirit. But the spirit is different here.
On weekends, the ‘family’ takes over in G’plein. The young family, with young kids.
Mothers with prams. Boy! You have to see to believe how many kinds of prams there can be in the world. And the world is full of babies. I hadn’t noticed that before! Can’t recall bumping into them all the time, everywhere, like I do now. Have the Dutch become suddenly more fertile? No… it’s just that I became a mother 4 years back…. and I’ve been hypersensitive to buggies and babies ever since. In all kinds of ways. I’m full of sympathy for new mums, for example, but can’t bear nappy-talk any more. Sorry! I still find new-borns to toddlers adorable though. In fact, every time I see a baby all pink and chubby and swaddled, I feel a tug in my heart… remembering my little monkey in that phase not so long ago. Very often, I actually stop to admire a tiny one in a sling,or look back to see the antics of a toddler determined to walk on his own, or ask a mother how many months her baby is while standing in a shop-queue to pay. On one such occasion, in HEMA, I remember – as I was admiring a pair of twins and complimenting the mother on their smiles, I heard a sudden cry by a tiny voice. When I puzzled over the source of the sound that was emitting from somewhere down below, the mother pointed out with great pride that she had a third baby below the twins, facing the other way! I’ve never seen a buggy like that! And I’m quite a veteran in buggy-spotting, I can tell you.
I know all the major brands now – and can make a fair guess about how much a family earns or its predilections just by the brand of the buggy it uses. So, if you are really flowing in cash and have a fashion statement to make, you will go for a STOKKE; if you are determined to give the best to your child and prefer functionality over everything else, you’ll go for the stolid, Dutch BUGABOO; if you want to keep it light and easy, and don’t buy provisions compulsorily every time you are out of the house, then you will obviously go for the MACLAREN stroller – to do just that, have a stroll with the baby; and when you are travelling, the flexible and foldable QUINNY is your best friend. And so on….
There’s a joke here that the Dutch have 2/3 children so that the investment they make on the first is paid off. If that is true, then the buggy is definitely an investment! And I see that getting paid off everywhere. All the Dutch women I know, barring very few exceptions, have at least two children, if not three. Going by the number of women I see in malls during week days, it is easy to assume that a great percentage of them are full-time homemakers. And many have part-time jobs. They prefer it that way, I’m told – so that they can do other things. It has always puzzled me – this country where feminism came so early, with Aletta Jacobs championing contraception way back in the 1890s, should be so patriarchal in its views. Only they are not patriarchal. The woman’s role remain the same, but the man also chips in. Generously. No wonder they all look so happy and relaxed.
I’ve marked that especially in Srishti’s playschool; and I find all the Dutch kids have at least one sibling. Or are in the process of acquiring one. The mothers of two of Srishti’s classmates got pregnant and delivered in the last year itself – the fathers doing just as much parenting as them. The new dads even come on weekdays, I’ve marked – one comes in the morning and one in the afternoon. I know their routines by now! They take a day off every week for their child. And seem to do very well managing two kids – an attention-hungry toddler and a new-born, cradling the baby in one arm while playing puzzles with the toddler with the other.
Seeing them, I feel that what should be feted is not motherhood – but parenthood.